Scott Walker blames young voters for GOP’s losses in Wisconsin, but offers few solutions for winning them back

Gun Rights
Janet Protasiewicz raises both arms in the air, and links hands with supporters, against a backdrop of posters saying: Fairness.
Janet Protasiewicz celebrates in Milwaukee after winning her election to Wisconsin Supreme Court on Wednesday. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

As the Republican Party grappled with major losses this week, former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker sought to pin the blame on young voters, but offered few solutions for how to win them back.

On Tuesday, Democrats scored a major victory when the liberal candidate Janet Protasiewicz won a seat on the Wisconsin State Supreme Court, giving them a majority in a race that shattered spending records. Protasiewicz won by 11% over her conservative opponent, Dan Kelly, a surprising margin in a state where the last two presidential elections had been decided by less than a single point.

“Younger voters are the issue,” Walker, who served as governor from 2011 to 2019 and was an early frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, said Thursday on Twitter.

“It comes from years of radical indoctrination — on campus, in school, with social media, & throughout culture,” he wrote, alongside a clip from a Fox News interview in which he elaborated on this theory. “We have to counter it or conservatives will never win battleground states again.”

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Walker, 55, serves as president of the Young America’s Foundation, a conservative group geared toward college students, which he promoted in his tweet. The group’s recent focus on its website and social media accounts has been promoting anti-trans speakers and highlighting campus protests against them.

Former Gov. Scott Walker at a podium marked American Conservative Union CPAC 2021.
Former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference in February 2021. (Octavio Jones/Reuters)

Polling data has shown that young voters boosted Democrats in the 2022, 2020 and 2018 elections. But while Walker was quick to blame cultural factors for driving young voters away from the GOP, he failed to mention his own party’s attempts to make it more difficult for college students to vote across the country, or their assault on the LGBTQ community, an issue that is likely to alienate them from millions of potential voters for years to come.

Walker also declined to offer possible solutions for how the party might appeal to young voters by introducing policies that are aligned with the issues they support.

The 2022 Harvard Youth Poll offers some clues as to where Republicans might be running into trouble with those between the ages of 18 and 29.

Conducted last fall, the survey found that the most important issue to young voters in the run-up to the midterms was inflation — something most Americans, regardless of age or political affiliation, agree is an issue.

Beyond inflation, though, the rest of the issues listed as priorities for young voters suggest that Republicans are likely to continue losing with this demographic, barring a dramatic change of approach.

Abortion

Abortion rights supporters gather, one holding a poster saying: My body, my choice, my vote. Women win.
Abortion rights supporters outside the Wisconsin state Capitol in Madison on April 2, before the state’s Supreme Court election. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

The second most important issue to young voters, according to the Harvard poll, is abortion, and that played a huge role in the Wisconsin Supreme Court race, with Protasiewicz campaigning on her support for a woman’s right to choose. If a case on Wisconsin’s 19th century abortion ban makes it to the state Supreme Court later this year, as expected, Protasiewicz would preside over it, a fact that was emphasized during the campaign.

Support for legal abortion is extremely popular among young Americans, particularly young women. However, last summer, Walker’s party completed a decades-long project to overturn Roe v. Wade and strip abortion access for millions across the country. Republican governors and legislatures are enacting more and more extreme bans, with Idaho passing a law this week to make adults who help minors seek abortions out of state liable for criminal charges and possible jail time.

Abortion could be an issue when Republicans try to retake the White House in November 2024. The current frontrunner for the nomination, former President Donald Trump, fulfilled his 2016 campaign promise of appointing Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe. His closest competitor, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, is set to sign a strict ban on abortions after six weeks in his state, which has only 34% support nationwide, according to a Yahoo News/YouGov poll conducted last month.

Protecting democracy

A small white bichon frisé waits under the booth where Barbara Wood is voting, with six other voters in the gym at booths behind her.
Voters at a school in Milwaukee during Wisconsin’s Supreme Court election on Tuesday. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

The poll found that the next most important issue for voters under 30, after abortion, is protecting democracy. As noted above, Republicans have been attempting to make it harder for college students to vote in a number of states, including the suggestion of banning polling places on campuses. Trump, their presidential frontrunner, is an election denier who, in an effort to overturn the 2020 race, which he lost by 7 million votes, incited a riot in Washington, D.C., that resulted in several deaths and hundreds of arrests. In August 2020, Trump threatened to hold up a large coronavirus relief package in an attempt to make it harder to vote by mail.

Republicans at the federal level have refused to move forward with new voter protections after the Voting Rights Act was gutted by the Supreme Court’s Republican-appointed justices in 2013. In 2021, GOP senators didn’t consider a compromise voting rights bill proposed by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

Democracy was also an important issue in Protasiewicz’s victory. Wisconsin’s legislative map is one of the most extreme gerrymanders in the country, a map that helped Republicans while Walker was in office and that he has defended over the years. For years, voting rights advocates have accused Republicans in the state of working to suppress low-income voters and voters of color.

Climate change

Floodwaters bisect a row of type on a sign for a home saying: Town of Caledonia.
An address sign for a home on the Wisconsin River in Caledonia Township, Wis., after a levee breached in 2010. (Allen Fredrickson/Reuters)

The fourth most important issue for young voters was climate change, as they seek to preserve a habitable planet for themselves and their children. Republicans have long denied the fact that average global temperatures have risen 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the Industrial Revolution, as well as the scientific consensus that this is caused by increased atmospheric concentrations of heat-trapping gases emitted by burning fossil fuels.

Trump has called climate change “a hoax invented by the Chinese.” During his first year in office, he pulled the country out of the Paris climate agreement, a move that a majority of voters disapproved of.

Polling shows that younger voters are more likely to support the Green New Deal, a policy package to address climate change that has been consistently mocked by Republicans. When President Biden announced his climate goals in 2021, a number of prominent Republicans spread misinformation stating that he wanted Americans to stop eating meat.

Gun control

Kashyia Smith, 12, of Wisconsin, holds a sign saying: This Is Not Normal.
Kashyia Smith, 12, of Wisconsin, in front of the White House in 2018 at a protest calling for gun control after school shootings. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

The fifth most important issue to young voters was gun control, as they have had to deal with the threat of school shootings throughout their lives. Top Republicans are longtime opponents of new gun safety reforms, regularly speaking at National Rifle Association events. Some elected officials have taken to wearing AR-15 pins, celebrating the assault rifle that has been used in a number of high-profile mass shootings over the years.

Walker’s comments came in a week in which DeSantis, currently seen as the party’s top alternative to Trump for the 2024 nomination, signed a bill that allows for the concealed carry of firearms in Florida without any license or training. On Thursday, Republicans in the Tennessee Legislature voted to expel two Democrats who had joined students in a protest calling for new gun safety laws after a mass shooting at a Nashville elementary school last week.

“There were thousands outside wanting us to stand up,” Justin Pearson, one of the expelled legislators, told Yahoo News. “I come from a community that [deals with gun violence regularly]. We want action, so we don’t have this issue. This is indicative of the silencing.”

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